Editorial 1 / Scent of power
Editorial 2 / Little mysteries
After the tidal wave
Book Review / There’s a bit of India for everyone
Book Review / Closet drama
Book Review / A literary bent of mind
Book Review / Chronicler of unrest
Editor’s Choice / Playing poker with history and philosophy
Paperback Pickings / From the margins of reporting
Letters to the editor

The election results from West Bengal have prevented Ms Sonia Gandhi’s cup of contentment from brimming over. But she has good reasons to feel happy about her party’s performance in the four other states that went to the polls on May 10. The mandate shows that the Congress, even though its strength is not what it used to be under Indira Gandhi, cannot be written off as a force in Indian politics. Despite what the proponents of a gimcrack coalition called the third front might say, the Congress remains the single most powerful party opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party. In Assam, Kerala and in Pondicherry, the Congress has emerged victorious and barring unforeseen developments will be in power for the next five years. In Tamil Nadu, it is part of the winning alliance but such is the overwhelming support in favour of Ms J. Jayalalitha and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, that the Congress is in no position to enjoy the fruits of power. In West Bengal, because of a unique set of circumstances, the Congress came in as a lame horse in the electoral race. But the responsibility for this miserable showing in West Bengal cannot entirely be laid at the door of the Congress leadership either at the state or national levels. The Congress struck an alliance in West Bengal with the party whose leader was without question perceived as a formidable challenger to left rule in the state. An efficient election machinery with no little help from the administration and the ignorance of the Election Commission together with a wrong-headed campaign made the election a one horse race.

If one leaves West Bengal at one side, it will be clear that the Congress’s overall position is much better than what it has been in the recent past. Before the elections, it held power in important states like Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. To these have now been added Kerala and Assam. The implications of this are obvious: the BJP and its allies have lost the popular mandate in substantial parts of the country. The Congress has gained from what the BJP has lost. This means that when the Lok Sabha reconvenes, the Congress will prove to be a thorn in the flesh of the National Democratic Alliance; this will mean that the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, will have to devote more attention on keeping his numbers intact and on keeping Parliament running smoothly than is healthy for dynamic policy-making.

The credit for this turnaround in the fortunes of the Congress must accrue to its president, Ms Gandhi. She has brought back commitment to a party that was thoroughly demoralized. Her enigmatic persona, not always an asset for a politician, is best suited for the present Congress party where so many contending factions and advisors are clamouring to be heard. Ms Gandhi has also been steadfast in her adherence to certain old Congress values. She has had no truck with the BJP. All these have made her an opposition leader to be reckoned with. But the move from being in opposition to being in government is a big one. To make that move, Ms Gandhi will have to clarify to her party and to the nation her attitude to economic reforms. Here, the adherence to old Congress ideas may well turn out to be disastrous. How she meets this challenge will determine the speed with which she moves from the provinces to the capital.


Ms Mamata Banerjee’s allegations against the Election Commission have provoked outrage, because her rhetoric and insinuations encourage the hearer to dismiss her charges as pure sound and fury. She has done her own case no good. Discovering intrigue and accusing the chief election commissioner of having been “bought off” cannot but seem like the ravings of persecution mania. But that does not mean that there is no case at all. The reports on the elections in West Bengal suggest that the EC should be facing a few hard questions about its functioning during the polls. The state assembly elections were doubtless “peaceful”. There was no river of blood in the district of Midnapore, and this was certainly cause for great relief. But the respective vote counts of the different candidates in the majority of booths in the troubled area, for instance Garbeta (East) and Keshpur, show an incredible difference. In one booth, for example, there are over a thousand votes in favour of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate and 10 for the Trinamool Congress candidate. In another there are 854 votes for the CPI(M) candidate and two for the Trinamool Congress candidate. These two examples indicate a voting pattern in almost all the booths of the area. The question is whether this can, in any fairness, be called a “voting” pattern at all. It is difficult to see what kind of monitoring EC officials were engaged in. The peace of the graveyard cannot be really called peace.

Equally thought-provoking is the percentage of voter turnout. Voter turnout at 80 to 90 per cent is remarkable anywhere in the world. But it is particularly noticeable that West Bengal’s turnout is much higher than that of any other state in India, and this time it has been quite startling. The EC needs to explain this phenomenon. The enthusiasm of West Bengal voters is not in doubt. But an enthusiasm so much in excess of that of their peers in the rest of the country is at least suspect, and therefore cause for closer scrutiny. The point being made is not political: the results may not have changed substantially had the officials of the EC been less trusting. The question is whether the EC has done all it could to ensure free and fair elections, which is, after all, its primary goal.


The very scale of J Jayalalitha’s election victory put paid to any pre-poll predictions of a narrow win for her alliance. As has often been the case in the past, the voters of the southern state gave an unambiguous and clear verdict, ringing out the old and ringing in the new. The governor, Fathima Beevi, had no legal option but to swear the lady into office. Not only is there no legal bar on the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader holding office, the rule under which her nomination papers were rejected have yet to stand up to the gaze of judicial scrutiny. By rejecting her papers, the returning officers of the four seats where she had hoped to contest only further strengthened her alliance.

But the victory this time was as much a result of her holding on to the traditional vote base as due to a carefully constructed network of alliances. If anything, the 2001 election has been a watershed in the state’s polity. This may not be evident at first glance, but is clear once you take a closer look at the nature of the verdict. The first time she won office in 1991, her alliance reduced the opposition to a single-digit presence in the House. No such luck this time.

In fact, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, even though down, is far from out. It managed to garner 30 per cent of the popular vote. Both M. Karunanidhi and his heir apparent, M.K. Stalin are members of the legislative assembly. What is more, the AIADMK polled just one per cent more votes than the rival Dravidian party did. True, too much should not be read into the vote percentages. Jayalalitha’s party contested only 141 seats. The DMK fought in as many as 182. But the very fact that she left so much space for her allies indicates what a tough climb it has been to the top of the hill.

The AIADMK has always been better at building multi-party alliances than its rival. In his lifetime, M.G. Ramachandran never lost a state election. The MGR era lasted for 12 years, but the party then split. Jayalalitha was no unchallenged leader at the time of his death. She had been propaganda secretary and a member of the Rajya Sabha. She spent two years on the opposition benches in Tamil Nadu before being voted to power in 1991.

Few outside the South realize how deep the ties of her party with the rural poor, and especially with women, are. MGR laid the foundation by expanding the mid-day meal scheme in schools. During Jayalalitha’s tenure, destitute women and the disabled were also allowed access to the food given under the scheme. The distribution of free sarees and the establishment of all-women police stations were other significant initiatives. This enabled the party to hold on to a large share of the popular vote even when swept out of office in 1996. It also gave Jayalalitha the base around which she could build a new network of alliances.

The victory of the AIADMK-led combine in 1998 marked a major turnaround. Jayalalitha forged ties with S. Ramadoss, an old adversary, and with Karunanidhi. The former’s party, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, is strong in the northern districts and is able to deliver the votes of its backward class supporters to anyone whom the leader aligns with. The last two general elections have been won by the alliance that includes Ramadoss.

This time, Jayalalitha carried the logic of alliances a step further. The PMK got a good deal: prize seats in its northern bastions. But the other parties lost safe places to the largest formation in the alliance. Moopanar’s party paid a heavy price. In the end, it paid off as the alliance encashed on the multiple failures of the DMK regime. Even the city of Chennai, where the mayoralty was captured by it in 1959, could not withstand the assault of the opposition. The doubling of the price of rice in ration shops that reach out to virtually all poor and lower middle class homes was a sure vote loser. Add to that the wages of anti-incumbency.

More striking still was the desperate bid of the DMK that led it to depart from the founding principles of its history and legacy. From the Forties on, it had forged close links with both the Urdu-speaking Muslims and their more numerous Tamil speaking counterparts. This time, the DMK’s alliance with the Hindutva forces gave Jayalalitha the edge among the minorities. The courtship of dozen caste-based outfits flew in the face of the central anti-caste message of the Dravidian movement. Eventually, it came a cropper. The major Dalit party in the southern districts failed to win a single seat. It may even have helped polarize an anti-Dalit vote bank in favour of the AIADMK. R. Thirumavalavan of the Dalit Panthers won his own seat in Mangalore in northern Tamil Nadu, but had to contest on the rising sun symbol of the DMK.

The caste equations actually worked in Jayalalitha’s favour. But it was a pathetic sight to see a veteran of the social justice movement come up with rationalizations for explicitly caste-based outfits. Worst of all, the bid to enthrone the chief minister’s son as heir apparent put Karunanidhi at odds with the traditions of the movement. In 1949, the DMK was founded in protest against E.V. Ramaswami Naicker’s attempt at dynastic succession in the parent organization, the Dravida Kazhagam. Karunanidhi hoped to succeed where his mentor had failed. But he fell into the same trap. Kinship is a route of influence in Tamil society, but has not got the stamp of popular approval.

For all the changes, there are basic elements of continuity in policy. Both the key parties are investor-friendly and have enabled gains from liberalization. Tamil Nadu ranks third in the country in terms of the rate of growth of the state domestic product, just behind the front-runners, Gujarat and Karnataka. The problems and pitfalls lie elsewhere. Jayalalitha’s previous tenure saw the party machine and her close associates wield enormous clout. Even as she fights her legal battles, Jayalalitha has to show that things have changed, and for the better.

Governance will not be like a bed of roses in an increasingly divided society. Landslide verdicts have a positive side, ensuring that one or the other side has a clear majority. But they also give a distorted picture of the state of the polity by muffling the voice of the opposition. The ruling party tends to throw its weight around, bending and even breaking the rules as there is no check on its style of functioning.

Knitting together an alliance of disparate parties and social groups may have got Jayalalitha into office. But controversy will dog her at every step. The people may have spoken: the new ruler now has to deliver what she has promised. This is one state where no one can take the voter for granted.

The author is independent researcher on ecology and political affairs and former fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library


By Peggy Payne,
Penguin, $ 17.50

The yuppie perception of Eastern “mysticism” has always drawn much criticism from the Indian audience. Poverty as a spectacle, religion weaving its magic spell, salvation just around the corner — Sister India is some kind of a yuppie hitchhiker’s guide through the Eastern mystical galaxy.

But the saving grace of Peggy Payne’s novel is that it does not take itself too seriously. Sister India is, first and foremost, a narrative tale. Payne has brought together diverse characters, all in the middle of their personal crises, to a guest-house on the ghats of Varanasi. Natraja, manager of Sarswati, the guest-house, is a 400-pound woman escapee from small town America. Around 40 years old, she has lived in India for most of her adult life.

No one knows the source of her anguish, which has driven her to compulsive eating in an attempt to put herself “in order again”. Natraja, or Estelle, rarely leaves the four walls she has confined herself to. Three guests check into Sarswati, each on their own mission: T.J. Clayton, with his research on cleaning up the Ganga, Jill Thornton, for a break during a business trip in the country, Marie Jasper, almost 80, on a tour of a long list of places before she dies.

But shortly after they arrive, Hindu-Muslim riots break out, shattering the peace of Varanasi. During the ensuing curfew, Natraja is driven to distraction by the fear that something will befall the elderly Ramesh, her openly-pious manservant. Her guests still venture out amidst the mayhem to unravel the secrets of the holy town.

What emerges as the most interesting thread is Natraja’s story. Once beautiful, Natraja is now a shadow of a woman, but she has carefully disguised depths which attract curiosity. Glimpses of the past come as flashes throughout the narrative, abrupt and seemingly random. Gradually, we can trace her journey, from a town called Neavis to the banks of the Ganga, with death and heartbreak at her heels.

Payne is also successful in capturing the visual impact of India. Her description of the ghats and galis are vivid. But finally, it is the cultural gap, which she does not attempt to bridge, that strikes a discordant note. Despite an honest attempt, Payne seems ultimately unable to view the culture she was confronted with in India with any real perspective.

She is mystified by the fact that Ganga is not only a holy river, but also a life-supporting body. The cleaning and washing, so integral a part of the Ganga, is a never-ending cause of amazement. Through the eyes of Marie: “This was like a city with no internal walls, people washing and brushing their teeth, elbow to elbow. She was glad she’d lived to stand in the midst of it.”

This is a strain that spills over occasionally on to Payne’s style as well. For example, she often resorts to cumbersome, ineffective descriptive phrases such as “at a distance of perhaps a dozen lengths of unwound saris”.

Payne does attempt, however, to draw a parallel between the sectarian disputes which have marked the history of India and the United States. The novel, set in an India just after violence in Ayodhya, also raises the issue of racial discrimination against African-Americans. She is careful not to take sides on the larger issue of racial prejudice, instead dealing with the impact it has on the life and psyche of those who live with it.

It is the climax of the novel where Payne gets lost in the cliché of India. The troubled inhabitants of Sarswati give themselves to the river, almost inadvertently, only to find new strength and purpose. But except in the case of Natraja, the spiritual rebirth of the other characters is sudden.

For Indian readers, Sister India can be a pleasant experience only on the merits of its simple storyline. Because even if Payne’s overtly American references to “Extra-Strength Tylenol” as the headache pill of choice, and to mithai as “gooey candy” can be ignored, her culture-shock cannot.


By Katherine Frank,
HarperCollins, Rs 595

The trouble with Katherine Frank is easily identifiable. The acolytes of the Nehru-Gandhi household had circulated as axiom, in those given Emergency days, the pretence that Indira is India. Frank has taken that assumption at its face value. Indira Gandhi herself might well have regarded it as self-evident that there could be no India without her occupying the centrestage. The afflictions India has suffered during the most part of the second half of last century is precisely on account of this egomania. Frank nurses the illusion of herself being objective. Unfortunately, she is not. She relies upon secondary sources, including books, articles and interviews with people who claim to have been close to Indira Gandhi. Such claims, more often than not, have a thin factual basis. B.K. Nehru and his wife emerge as larger than life characters in the book. It is, however, doubtful whether Indira did ever confide in them to any serious extent.

She was an extremely private individual and there were, apart from Sanjay, few persons she relied upon in the later period of her life. Frank is perhaps right in her perception that Indira Gandhi’s adoration for the younger son was also tinged with a whiff of fear. In this context, it is altogether irrelevant whether Sanjay did actually slap her across the face on a particular occasion; he had in any case an overwhelming psychological grip over her persona, conceivably because of the guilt complex she suffered from because she had behaved shabbily with the father of her two sons.

Frank is a great believer in tittletattle. If it suited her purpose, Indira Gandhi could play the role of a coquette. She, however, was aesthetically too refined to take a crude man like M.O. Mathai as her lover. The same observation is appropriate in regard to her relationship with the yoga instructor, Dhirendra Brahmachari; his real line of communication was via Sanjay; whatever influence this shady person exercised on her was courtesy the younger son.

Frank implies that in order to provoke Indira’s jealousy, Feroze Gandhi purposely chose the company of alluring women. She refers explicitly to Tarakeshwari Sinha. She could not be more outrageously wrong. Tarakeshwari had glamour and, in addition, she was, and continues to be, what shall one say, a natural flirt. That does not make her Feroze Gandhi’s mistress, nor, for the matter, Morarji Desai’s. True, she was anti- Indira, but then Indira too nursed an antipathy towards Tarakeshwari Sinha. That proves nothing.

At the same time, by the late Fifties, without doubt, personal relations between husband and wife were irretrievably ruptured. Indira disliked the genre of politics Feroze specialized in, more so since it embarrassed Jawaharlal Nehru no end. She decided to get even. Her resolve to persuade her father to dismiss the E.M.S. government in Kerala, it is possible to speculate, was largely provoked by the political company Feroze kept. The day the communist government was got rid of, one of his close friends — himself a considerable political animal — happened to be spending the evening at Feroze Gandhi’s MP quarters in New Delhi. He expressed mild surprise that the Indira they knew in their London days, with her apparent ardour for leftist causes, could turn such a complete somersault. Feroze’s response was revealing; if only this friend spent a week in the prime minister’s residence, he would realize the extent of the sycophancy prevailing at that place; such sycophancy could transform perfectly normal human beings into burnt-out cases: old men who had been in prison for fifteen to twenty years in the cause of the nation’s independence and who had outstanding stature in public life, would prostrate themselves at the feet of this slip of a girl, the prime minister’s daughter; it was enough to turn her head and make her a rabid authoritarian.

Katherine Frank is dead right in one matter: Indira Gandhi’s problems during the last dozen years of her life are attributable to the poverty of advice and counsel she received in that period. Quality counts. P.N. Haksar’s proximity during the first phase of her prime ministerial tenure made a lot of difference to the decisions arrived at then. For instance, those who are in the know would not demur at the statement that the triumph in the Bangladesh war was as much the contribution of Haksar as of Indira. Once the Congress was split in 1969, she lacked a parliamentary majority and was induced by Haksar to seek programmatic support from the left. Indira was no ideologue though, but a quintessential opportunist. She was also an ingrate.

After Haksar was unceremoniously removed from the centre of power, he spent most of his time with his family, reading books and experimenting with the culinary arts. He must have ruminated at that stage about Indira Gandhi inviting her own nemesis and whether he himself could not be accused of being an accessory after the fact. Haksar’s point of view would be simple and straightforward. The Congress was a moribund apparatus and if you wanted to bring about thoroughgoing social transformation, you have to set up an alternative power structure; he hoped to build such a structure around the prime minister’s persona. The alternative power structure certainly emerged in no time. It could not however be put to use for social engineering of the kind Haksar and his leftist friends had dreamt of. Sanjay Gandhi took it over and made it the principal, if not the exclusive, instrument of coercive rule: his mother nodded approvingly from the sideline.

On one particular point, one has to pick a vigorous quarrel with Frank. Because her confidantes have told her so, she believes that Jawaharlal Nehru was a reluctant journeyman in his office of prime minister and that Indira Gandhi won the battle of succession, with a short time lag, not on account of him, but despite him. Frank could not be more wrong. Her gullibility similarly stretches to absurd proportions when she suggests that it was not initially in Indira’s mind to consider either of her sons as her successor. In the case of Sanjay, perhaps she was pre-empted. Where Rajiv is concerned, no such complication intervened. Within a couple of hours of Sanjay’s aerobic death, Indira Gandhi must have decided that her senior son would step into the junior brother’s shoes.

Frank’s book is unduly long because she wanted to be inordinately faithful to the gossip-mongers. It is nonetheless readable. While not an authoritative treatise, it throws up ideas which others could do further research on.

The book deserved better editing. C.R. Das, for example, was a Bengali lawyer, but not from Allahabad. There are other blemishes of a similar kind.


Edited By Kajal Sengupta,
S.C. Sen Gupta Foundation, Rs 150

The epithet, “scholar extraordinary”, aptly describes Subodh Chandra Sen Gupta, once a towering figure in the teaching of English literature in India. Although primarily remembered for his dissertations on the works of Shakespeare, Sen Gupta’s contributions in other areas of literature are equally important, as are his critical comments on Bengali literature. His original discussions on Bengali literature opened up new vistas for scholars who came after him.

It will be wrong to expect the book to attract a wide readership, but the limited readership will be rewarded with a glimpse of Sen Gupta’s wide scholarship. This becomes more important now than ever before, as an entire generation have just missed having Sen Gupta as professor.

This volume was conceived of as a homage to the legendary professor, an attempt to bring out his greatness as a scholar and to provide for posterity “some record of the man and his personality”. As the editor, Kajal Sengupta, puts it, the book is an “assimilation of intellectual trends followed by academic personalities ranging from Sen Gupta’s near-contemporaries and students to comparatively younger critics who know his works but did not know the man. As such, the book subtly foregrounds the elements that make Sen Gupta a critic for all times.”

Of the 18 essays in the book, four deal with Sen Gupta’s Shakespearean criticism. Shirshendu Chakrabarti’s “A Re-appraisal of Aspects of Shakespearian Tragedy” focusses on the work of one of the great Shakespearean critics, A.C. Bradley, whose Shakespearean Tragedy remains a canonical critical work. Sen Gupta was not overawed by the stature of Bradley and pointed out his limitations without hesitation.

Of the other essays in this group, particular mention may be made of Visvanath Chatterjee’s “On ‘Shakespearian Comedy’”, as Sen Gupta’s Shakespearian Comedy, published in 1950, “still retains for its readers its vitality and validity as an important critical study of Shakespeare”. Excerpts from it were included in Shakespeare’s Critics, edited by A. M. Eastman and G.B. Harrison — an honour for any Shakespearean scholar.

If the articles on the other aspects of Sen Gupta’s critical work may be considered as a separate group, the facsimile of George Bernard Shaw’s letter to him certainly attracts attention. Shaw admits, however, in the letter, that he had not been able to go through the entire contents of the book, The Art of Bernard Shaw, that had been sent to him. It is interesting to read this letter together with the article by another stalwart, Tarak Nath Sen, who makes a critical assessment of the book on Shaw.

For those who are familiar with the critical works of Sen Gupta, his works on Bengali literature hold a place of high esteem. Sudeshna Chakravarti, in her essay, “Literary Theories in Bengali Criticism”, is correct in saying that Sen Gupta handled both English and Bengali with equal ease. The other essays on Sen Gupta’s criticism of Bengali literature are illuminating too. Bhabatosh Dutta’s essay, in particular, is more of an indepth study than an essay.

Kajal Sengupta deserves the thanks first of that group of readers who have been, at some time or the other, students of Sen Gupta, and also of those whose introduction to the scholar and his criticism has been through this book. She has successfully bridged the gap between the old school of criticism and the new.


By Manikuntala Sen,
Stree, Rs 450

Manikuntala Sen needs no introduction to those even faintly informed about Indian politics. Her memoirs, Shediner Katha, published in Bengali way back in 1982, contained a movingly detailed account of a tumultuous period in the history of Indian politics — between 1930 and 1960. Stree’s attempt to bring out the English translation of Sen’s memoir nearly 14 years after her death is laudable, even if it is a little belated. Hopefully, this edition will reach out to a wider readership and create sensation afresh.

Sen strode on the stage of Indian politics when politics had not become a lucrative career option. The accounts of those who personally knew her present Sen as an unassuming and sensitive woman, full of rare determination. These traits have been unmistakably reflected in her writing. But, more than anything else, it is Sen’s unrelenting honesty which is manifest in almost every page of her memoir. She does not conceal her difficulty in reconciling herself to the “atheist” fission of communism, nor does she hesitate to criticize the Indian communists’ stance towards the 1942 nationalist agenda, towards “the Chinese aggression which severely jolted the Jawaharlal Nehru government at the Centre. Such honesty, which Tapan Raychaudhuri calls “Gandhian honesty” in his foreword, is uncommon among Indian political activists.

Sen was the sixth of eight children of Bilas Chandra and Khirodbala Sen of Barishal in undivided Bengal. Born in 1910, Sen spent her childhood in Barishal, whose natural opulence is brilliantly evoked in the poetry of Jibanananda Das. In her memoir, Sen dwells at length on Barishal, recapturing some of her unforgettable childhood memories.

She admits to have been benefited immensely from her association with the three wise men of Barishal — Ashwini Kumar Dutta, Kalishchandra Pandit and Jagadish Chandra Bose. Another great influence during her formative years was Snehalata Das (sister of Jibanananda Das), the headmistress of her school. Her admiration for these individuals, and the ideals they stood for, influenced her decision to adopt the basic humanistic ideals of communism.

Tapan Raychaudhuri is right in saying that “this memoir has multiple dimensions.” Sen vividly portrays her struggles within and outside her family and her party. Both as a fighter for the women’s cause — Sen was one of the founder members of Mahila Atma Raksha Samity — and as a full-time member of the undivided Communist Party of India, Sen emerges an uncompromising individual. In the Sixties, when the CPI headed for a split, Sen tried her best to resolve the crisis. When her effort came a cropper, she decided to give up her membership.

The memoir chronicles a number of political events in which she was involved as a party-worker. The 1942 famine is described in breathtaking detail, the communal riots during Partition in all its shuddering violence, World War II and its impact upon the anti-colonial struggle in India through subtle exploration. The Tebhaga andolan, too, finds a brief mention.

Although the translation has been done by a number of people over a long time, it never flounders, nor does it allow the reader’s attention to flag. One tends to agree with Tapan Raychaudhuri when he says that the translators “should not remain anonymous.”


By David Edmonds and John Eidinow,
Faber, £ 9.99

Room number three in staircase H of Gibbs Building in King’s College, Cambridge, is now shared by Martin Rees, astronomer and Nobel laureate, and Emma Rothschild, economic historian and wife of Amartya Sen, another Nobel prize winner. But in 1946, it was occupied by Richard Braithwaite, the philosophy don at King’s. H3’s claim to fame, however, is based not on its present or past occupants. It was the site of a stormy encounter between two eminent philosophers. This book is an attempt to contextualize and to reconstruct that notorious set-to between Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

After World War II, meetings of the Cambridge Moral Science Club were held in H3. The club was a weekly discussion group for the university’s philosophers and philosophy students and its presiding deity then was Wittgenstein himself. The Moral Science Club went back to 1878 and had been the home of many heated discussions in which names like Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, J.L. Austin, A.J. Ayer and so on had featured. Its list of speakers was a kind of who’s who of Anglo-Saxon philosophers and of some European ones as well.

On Friday, October 25, 1946, Karl Popper came from the London School of Economics to speak to the club. Popper’s target was Wittgenstein’s proposition that philosophical problems were merely puzzles. Popper wanted to show that there were indeed philosophical problems. During the course of the heated exchange, Wittgenstein had, as was his wont, picked up the poker from the fireplace and had jabbed the air with it to emphasize the points he was making. Popper, in his autobiography, Unended Quest, where he described the incident in some detail, recalled that when challenged by Wittgenstein to give an example of a moral rule, he said, “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers”. Whe- reupon, Wittgenstein left the room in a rage, banging the door after him.

As soon as Popper’s version was published, it stirred up a controversy. He was even called a liar by some eyewitnesses who were loyal followers of Wittgenstein. They said that Wittgenstein had walked off in a huff when Russell told him, “You’re the one mixing things up. You always mix things up.” Popper’s wisecrack about the poker had come after Wittgenstein’s dramatic exit. The authors of this book bring all the contending versions together and generally agree that Popper’s comment had come after his rival’s departure. That Wittgenstein had been handling the poker and had banged the door are not disputed. But he always did these and Popper may have been the cause of his anger, but not its object.

What is marvellous is the way the authors, in the process of reconstructing the incident, take readers on a tour de horizon of 20th century philosophy, of Thirties Vienna and the formative influences on the intellectual developments of the two principal actors.

For those interested in philosophical issues and in the foibles of philosophers, this is a fascinating account. But the lesson in it is about the vulnerability involved in the remembrance of things past. Mnemosyne is not always a reliable guide. Yet all history is dependent on an act of recollection. Can we then speak about the past with certainty? The past is elusive. Should we at all speak about it? “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”


(HarperCollins, Rs 295)

People Unlike Us: The India That is Invisible is a collection of contemporary essays in interpretative journalism, picking up issues that are marginal to the mainstream media’s interests. The previous volumes in this series have been subjects of recent importance, like Kargil and the Pakistani coup. Seeking to “rise above and go beyond” the media, this collection looks at “the India we have no time or patience for”. Muzamil Jaleel presents two remote Kashmiri villages on the line of control, ravaged by the army and the militants. Sagarika Ghose investigates the links between poverty and sati in rural Uttar Pradesh, while Sankarshan Thakur covers the public hanging of a young couple — a Yadav boy and a Jat girl — for eloping, in the same state. Naxalism in Jehanabad, the aftermath of the cyclone in Orissa, tribals in Madhya Pradesh and domestic workers from Darjeeling form the subject of a number of memorable pieces. The emphasis is throughout on “real” lives and “real” people.

Edited By Rita Manchanda
(Sage, Rs 295)

Rita Manchanda’s Women, War and Peace in South Asia: Beyond Victimhood to Agency is a pioneering collection of gender analyses of conflict in south Asia. It focusses on women’s experiences as representing alternative and non-violent ways of confronting strife. The essays look at women in the Kashmir and the Tamil conflicts, Assam, Nagaland and the Chittagong hill tracts, the Muttahida Quami Movement in Karachi and Maoist insurgency in Nepal. The upheavals usually accompanying conflict opens up empowering public spaces for women, bringing about social changes. Yet these are also times when the impulse towards women’s autonomy is heavily limited by a nationalism which regards them as custodians of their community’s traditions and cultural identity.

By Khushwant Singh
(Penguin, Rs 200)

Khushwant Singh’s Ranjit Singh: Maha-Raja of the Punjab is a re-issue of a detailed historical biography, written in the early Sixties, of the Sikh ruler of the Punjab, a contemporary of Napoleon Bonaparte. Singh’s portrayal of the Maharaja emphasizes his achievement in uniting Punjabi Mussulmans, Hindus and Sikhs in order to create the one and only independent kingdom in the history of the Punjab. Emily Eden describes Ranjit Singh as looking “exactly like an old mouse with grey whiskers and one blind eye”, yet Singh’s depiction also brings out the Napoleonic element in the Maharaja: “In the history of the world, it would be hard to find another despot who never took life in cold blood, yet built as large an empire as Ranjit’s.” The book provides a bibliography in which the most recent entry is from the Fifties. One also misses an afterword updating this minor classic of historical biography in the light of subsequent scholarship.



On wobbly ground

Sir — Nothing is going right for the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee as he, the coalition he heads, and the party he belongs to, all appear to be on wobbly knees. And literally. He was just about recuperating from the Tehelka exposé, when Sonia Gandhi decided to go on a screaming session at Lal Krishna Advani inside Parliament. Before he knew how to react to this, his party and its allies suffered humiliating defeats in the states of Assam and Tamil Nadu. Alongside, the debacles in West Bengal and Kerala have not helped matters at all. Meanwhile, the labour arm of his beloved Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, wants one of his trusted ministers, Yashwant Sinha, out of the scene. Now we hear that his right knee has to be operated upon at once (“Atal’s other knee heads for scalpel”, May 17). Caught in the eddy of these whirlwind events, Vajpayee now has to consider mid-term polls. Till then, democracy will continue to limp in India.

Yours faithfully,
Rajeev Mishra, via email

Confused picture

Sir — In his article, “Writing for boys’ own weekly” (April 28), Sunanda K. Datta-Ray unleashes a scathing attack on Marie Colvin for her distortion of facts. He succeeds in identifying a fundamental problem in the reporting of Asian political issues by Western journalists. Unlike their Asian counterparts, these correspondents might not be lacking in their commitment to their job or might not even lack sincerity and honesty of purpose, but they are disabled by an inadequacy of knowledge about the Asian people — their cultures, religions, the diversity of their food, the languages, the climate and topography.

This is a serious handicap because without an understanding of these issues they do not comprehend the complexity of any socio-economic or political situation in its proper perspective. At best, they have a superficial grasp of the goings-on in a certain region.

There is also the problem of stereotypical notions about Asian people in the minds of Westerners. Asians are very often assumed to be a people who do not much care about the ideals of democracy and human rights. Asians are imagined to prefer theocracies, or fiefdoms.

It is assumed that ideas like self-determination, civic rights and so on are non-issues for Asian polities. The resultant bias and lopsided understanding make these journalists sympathize with various separatists groups. Many in fact consider the Kashmiri militants to be a bunch of hapless crusaders fighting against the ruthless oppression of the Indian administration. Similarly, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam finds sympathizers in the Western media in which they are taken to be a group of brave soldiers desperately combating the merciless Sri Lankan army.

That these separatist groups are dangerously armed, notoriously greedy for power or wealth, and are wanton killers are thus all overlooked by these media persons.

Yours faithfully,
Susanta Kumar Biswas, Calcutta

Sir — Ashok Mitra’s article, “In our end is our beginning” (May 9), paints an unnecessarily gory picture of the average American television viewer. In doing this, he overlooks the fact that people all over the world find a morbid delight in such TV or film viewing. Many Indian films and TV serials depict scenes of excruciating torture or bloody massacres and this has not affected the popularity of these shows. If anything, it has been proved that there exists a reasonably large viewership for these programmes. However, the article about Gore Vidal, (“Vidal defends decision to watch Mcveigh die”) in the same issue of The Telegraph makes a more sensible point.

Mitra’s exposition of electoral law in 14 southern states of the United States (which disqualify about a million black voters under a variety of pretexts) is truly something to despair about. No wonder then that the US has just lost its seat in the United Nations human rights body in favour of three other western European countries (“US loses rights body seat”, May 5).

Yours faithfully,
H.P. Mitra, Calcutta

Guns and the willow

Sir — The editorial, “State before wicket” (April 27), has rightly inquired if the government should at all be involved with matters relating to sport and what the purpose of a sports minister should be. The Board of Control for Cricket in India has become a puppet in the hands of the Centre, and it is incapable of taking any independent decision. Yet it is actually a member of the International Cricket Council, which has nothing to do with the government of India at all. The BCCI is an important foreign exchange earner for the Indian government and, naturally, the Centre does not want to lose control over it.

This was the primary motivation behind the Centre’s intervention in matters like participation in the tournament in Sharjah. The BCCI should stand up for its autonomous rights and reject such interventionist posturing by the government. It should altogether reject these attempts by the Centre and take cricket above the level of politics.

Yours faithfully,
Niloy Sinha, Azimganj

Sir — The editorial comes down strongly on Uma Bharti. Hundreds of our soldiers have been butchered on the freezing heights of Kargil, but this consideration should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to stand in the way of our cricket-loving public. They must have their share of fun. Marauders from across the border may go on their daily killing sprees, but that should not prevent the BCCI from making its millions.

It must be mentioned that the editorial was uninformed inasmuch as it commented that the ICC is above the intervention of the Indian government. It is very much within the rights of the Indian government to decide where the Indian cricket team is going to play and with whom. Flushed with funds, the BCCI is under the impression that it is a state within a state. And The Telegraph is not helping the cause by encouraging it to believe in its autonomy.

Yours faithfully,
Sunil Sen, Calcutta

Sir — “State before wicket” (April 27) attacks the minister for sports and youth affairs, Uma Bharti. She has put national security above everything else and said that cricket should be subservient to national interests. What is wrong with that? The BCCI does not really care about national security. In this regard, Bharti has taken the correct stance. It is just as well that the government of India is acting tough with the BCCI because, and we have to accept this, cricket is not the noblest of professions, as has been amply demonstrated by the recent matchfixing and betting scandals.

Yours faithfully,
N. Bose, Ranchi

Dangerous division

Sir — The divider separating two-way traffic in front of Carmel High School on Gariahat Road (South) used to have gaps in it and steps were cut into them to enable students and parents to cross. This was very helpful of the municipal authorites, especially because the two sides of the road, respectively for traffic headed south and north, are not level. One side is higher than the other. Obviously, it is difficult to cross this street. And, to make matters doubly difficult, there is very heavy traffic here. For some reason, the little steps against the divider have now been blocked off, making it nearly impossible to cross over. Every day more than one thousand students and their escorts risk their lives simply to get to the school and to get out of it. Will somebody do something about this?

Yours faithfully,
Priyanka M. Roy, Pratiti Ganatra and others, Carmel High School, Calcutta

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